Category Archives: Science Fiction

Off to VCON36

This weekend (Sep 30 – Oct 2) I’m heading off to VCON 36, a science fiction convention in Vancouver, BC. I’m going to be sitting on several panels (including one on digital art, one on podcasting, one on games, and one on “messy science”), and I’ll be giving two talks:

  • “The Science Behind Larry Niven’s Neutron Star“. Larry Niven is the guest of honor, so I figured that this would be a good topic. I’ll talk about what neutron stars are, and also about tidal forces (oops, I just spoiled the story for you… it’s still worth reading!). This short story is one I discovered in a used bookstore back in the early years of grad school (early 1990’s), and it started me on a kick of reading all of Niven’s “Known Space” stories.
  • “Constructing a Space Combat Game Consistent with Newton’s Laws”. Last year I talked about Newton’s Laws in science fiction movies and TV. This year, it’s with a miniatures boardgame.

Vote for me in the “American Gods” audiobook contest!

Bookperk is holding a contest/open audition for a small speaking role in an upcoming audiobook of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. (That book, by the way, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and I can recommend it as quite a good read.) Fancying myself something of an amateur actor (most recently in Second Life), and a regular podcaster on “365 Days of Astronomy”, I figured I should audition for this.

The deal is that they’re going to listen to the top 20 vote-getters, and decide based on the audition recordings. So, please, vote for me, and tell all your friends to vote for me! If I can get into the top 20, then it will just depend on how my recording stacks up compared to the others. If not… well, then it doesn’t matter. Follow this link to vote for me.

Paul Demorest has a tribble!!!

Paul Demorest, a Jansky Fellow at the National Radio Astronomical Observatory, was in the news two weeks ago because he and collaborators measured the mass of a neutron star, and found it to be twice the mass of the Sun… which is more massive than some models said they should be.

However, there’s something else very significant about this, as evidenced by this photo:

Paul Demorest has a tribble!!!!!!

You can see for yourself if you go to the NRAO press release and watch the first movie there.

(More about actual science later; indeed, on November 20, I’ll be giving a popular talk in Second Life for MICA all about neutron stars and such.)

The Second Law Is…

I will sometimes see science blog posts refer to “The Second Law” as if we all knew exactly what they meant.

As far as I can tell, “The Second Law” could refer to any of:

  • F = ma
  • A line joining the planet to the Sun sweeps out equal areas in equal times
  • ΔS≥0
  • A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

(And probably a number of other things.)

Off to VCON this weekend, talking about Newton’s Laws in TV and movies

This weekend I’m going to be off hanging out at VCON 35, a science fiction convention in Vancouver. As has been the case with science fiction conventions I’ve gone to in the past, I’ll be giving a talk about something science-related. (Yes, I wasted no time finding a geek convention to talk at after arriving up here in Canada! In fact, truth to tell, it was during the afterglow of Hypericon last year that I searched around to see what might be going on where I was about to move to, found VCON, and volunteered to give a talk.)

The talk I’ll be giving is a slightly modified version of one I gave at Hypericon a couple of years ago: Newton’s Laws in Science Fiction Movies and TV: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I’m also going to be on a couple of other panels (presumably with other people).

Monday, it’s back to the Energy & Matter course I’m teaching this block— and grading, since there’s an assignment due Monday! (So if you’re a student in the class, get to work! There’s a wiki page to write….)

Essential Science Fiction Movies

io9 is doing a series on Science Fiction for Beginners. It includes a post today by Charlie Jane Anders, 25 classic science fiction movies that everybody must watch.. It’s a good list.

I am embarrassed to admit that there are a couple of movies on the list I haven’t seen. (No, I haven’t seen Metropolis yet, and I realize that makes me culturally illiterate. Nor have I seen Planet of the Apes, Road Warrior, or Ghost in the Shell.) I’ll have to make a point to see them.

I do agree with Anders about Brazil— when forced to list a favorite movie of all time, usually that’s the one that I list. I’m also happy that both a Star Trek and a Star Wars movie made the list, because those movies (the second in each series) were good movies; sometimes people are too self-consciously highbrow to include something from a mass-market franchise.

I do have to quibble with what Anders says about Back to the Future. A very fun movie, mind you, but I wouldn’t say that it’s theory of time travel really makes all that much sense. I suppose it does apply the theory consistently, but it was definitely a “fantasy” theory of time travel. A science fiction movie that I think is great and that I’d include (along with Primer) as one of the two “essential” time travel movies is 12 Monkeys. (Which, I believe, was produced by Terry Gillam, who also did Brazil.)

Other movies that I would have considered for the top of the list include Gattaca (probably the most sensible treatment of the social spectre of genetically engineering our kids), The Truman Show, and maybe, just maybe, Buckaroo Bonzai, as the definitive and most rewatchable treatment ever of camp.

The Moon in “Heroes” is VERY different from our Moon.

My wife and I tend to watch TV shows a year after they come out; we rent the DVDs from Netflix and watch them then. We’re right now working our way through the third seasons of Heroes. If you’ve watched even the first season of Heroes, you know that Eclipses are a Big Deal and somehow cause or affect superpowers in humans. Well, there’s another total solar eclipse coming in Season 3. Here’s a screenshot (also showing a vapor ring left behind as Nathan Patrelli took off flying at high speed) of the moon about to eclipse the Sun:

heroes_badmoon

OK, first, the good. Yes, the Moon is apparently about the same size as the Sun in the sky. (Yeah, the Sun looks a little bigger, but that’s probably because of the glare. There’s about to be a total eclipse, so they’ve got to have about the same apparent size. In any event, the size is close.)

Now, the bad. When the moon is that close to the Sun in the sky, it is a tiny, tiny, tiny, very thin crescent, basically a new moon. You will not see it at all, until it starts to actively block out the Sun. The reason for this is that since they’re so close to each other in a sky, it’s almost a straight line from the Earth to the Moon to the Sun. The distance to the Moon is much less, so the Moon is between us and the Sun. Thus, the side lit up by the Sun is the far side of the Moon from us.

Yet, here, instead of an almost-new moon, we see an almost-half-full moon! For half of the moon to be lit by the Sun when we see the two right next to each other in the sky, the moon would have to be at about the same distance from us as the Sun…. Well, it’s not quite half, so it’s a little closer, but we’re talking inside the orbit of Mercury here. And, for the Moon to look as big as as the Sun when it’s that far away, it will have to be physically almost as big as the Sun!

In our Universe, the Moon is a satellite of the Earth, about 1/4 the diameter of the Earth, and orbiting the Earth. The Sun is about 100 times the diameter of the Earth. The reason they look about the same size in the sky is because the Moon is so much closer.

From the evidence in the image above, however, the Earth of the Heroes Universe is very, very strange. They orbit a binary “star” system, including the Sun and the Moon… although the Moon is not a satellite of the Earth at all, but a binary partner to the Sun. However, the Heroes Universe Moon is an extremely bizarre object, for despite being so large, it does not shed any light of its own in the optical. It’s clearly not a large gas cloud, for you can see by looking at it that it’s a solid object with “seas” and craters and all of that. So, it’s something that has somehow managed to be as big as the Sun without triggering fusion inside to make it glow.

Wow.

Well, given that all these superpowers work, we already knew they were operating under different laws of Physics, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

My only fear is that people watching the show don’t realize that the producers are being very clever here in showing us that the Moon is a gigantic object that is nearly as far away as the Sun, very different from the case in our own world. I fear that some people watching might either think that the producers of the show have done the typical Hollywood thing and made a boner of a mistake, or may think that it’s entirely reasonable to see a near-half Moon right next to the Sun in the sky. I hope in upcoming episodes there will be dialog between the characters that more clearly reveals the nature of their Moon as a star-sized object close to the Sun.

Linux Torvald’s plagiarism revealed!

I’ve just watched Caprica, the pilot for a prequel series to the recent Battlestar Galactica.  In the last episode of BSG, we learn that all of this takes place tens of thousands of years in the past.  Yet, look what we see in on technologist’s bookshelf in Caprica:
caprica-linux.jpg

All of this (open source) has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

Grumbling about MidSouthCon’s “science” guest of “honor”

Last weekend I went to MidSouthCon, a medium-small science fiction convention in Memphis, TN.  (Well, Olive Branch, MS, but who’s counting).   It was jolly.  I ran a Fudge game, I hung out with friends new and old, I got a T-shirt that mixes the standard model of particle physics with Dr. Seussian poetry.  And, I was a guest myself; I gave a talk about Second Life, and did a live demo of Second Life.  I was also on a panel about “advising the movies”, even though I’ve never actually done that… I have given a talk about how Newton’s Laws hold up in science fiction movies and TV, though, which is probably why the event planners put me on that panel.

However, there was one thing that bothered me greatly.  See, they have a number of guests of honor.  Their writer guest of honor was Mike Resnick, and their artist guest of honor was Vincent de Fate, both of whom are truly excellent choices.  But, even though I’m no longer entirely a working scientist, I have to admit to feeling a little insulted that they chose a crackpot for the scientist guest of honor rather than me.  Not that I’m of the stature to deserve an “of honor” position, but at least I’m something of a scientist. I mean, come on people.  It’s fine to listen to the crackpots and have fun with them, but calling a UFO Guy the “science guest of honor?”

It’s great to have an open mind.  But there is a difference between having an open mind and an open braincase– that is, open in the way that an open circle is not a filled circle….

What’s sad is that a lot of the people who come to these conventions have a lot of interest in science, but don’t know a lot about it.  They may have more interest than many in the general public as a result of reading science fiction.  They may also have a tendency to want to believe some more fantastical things like UFOs.  But we can provide some really interesting real science talks that the public loves.  I’ve given science talks at Hypericon for the last four years, and they’ve generally been well received.  My talk about the modern picture of the expanding Universe was as mind-blowing as anything that the crackpots come up with, but is also supported by real actual evidence.  It’s sad when an opportunity like this is blown on foo-fa and ignorance.

Astronomical References in Shakespeare

Thanks to Brian Cooksey for the shout out last time I was a contributor to the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast. I’ve also done today’s podcast, all about astronomical references in Shakespeare’s tragedies… starting with Romeo & Juliet, what with it being Valentines day and all. Go and listen to the podcast!

For your viewing pleasure, I’ve also got a transcript of the podcast here:

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